N.C. legislators get up-close look at Elon’s Physician Assistant Studies Program

Three area lawmakers toured the program’s facilities in the Gerald L. Francis Center and learned more about the role these future providers play in the health care industry.

Dr. Cindy Bennett, assistant professor of physician assistant studies, talks about the anatomy lab in the School of Health Sciences with local legislators and other visitors. 
Elon University offered a look at the ins and outs of its Physician Assistant Studies Program on Monday to a group of local legislators during their visit to the university’s School of Health Sciences. 

During a tour of the Gerald L. Francis Center, which is home to the Physician Assistant Studies and Doctor of Physical Therapy programs, three state lawmakers who represent Alamance County learned about the value that physician assistants bring to the health care system and the expertise they gain during their 27 months of training in Elon’s program. The visit was coordinated by the program and by the N.C. Academy of Physician Assistants, a professional organization that supports the profession. 

Members of the N.C. General Assembly Sen. Rick Gunn, Rep. Dennis Riddell and Rep. Stephen Ross toured classrooms, surveyed exam rooms where students interact with simulated patients and visited the anatomy lab that serves a key role in helping these future providers understand the human body. 

“We do pack a lot into a two-year program,” said Melissa Murfin, program director and assistant professor of physician assistant studies. 

Elon’s Physician Assistant Studies Program launched in 2013 and enrolled its fifth cohort of 38 students this year. Shifts in the health care system have increased demand for advanced-practice providers like physician assistants, and admission to the program continues to be competitive, with applications for the next class of 38 students on track to hit 1,800 by the deadline, Murfin said. 

Elon’s program is one of 13 in the state, and nearly nine of every 10 physician assistants now practicing in the state have graduated from the 11 programs that are housed at private N.C. universities like Elon. 

Melissa Murfin, director of the Physician Assistant Studies Program, second from right, talks with visitors to the School of Health Sciences in one of the program's classrooms. 
“I think that underlines the fact that these providers are educated here and decide to stay and practice here,” Emily Adams, executive director of the N.C. Academy of Physician Assistants, told the legislators. “We are hoping that PAs can be the answer to the lack of providers in underserved communities. They are more willing to go back and work in these communities because that’s where they are from.”

Asked by Riddell if the increased reliance on physician assistants could help stem rising health care costs, Murfin said that they have that potential. “As a profession, these providers were designed to assist physicians and provide a high level of care,” Murfin said. “Whatever they delineate for us, we take over for them and do. We seek to ease the burden on them and that can help reduce the cost of care.”

Murfin said the goal of Elon’s Physician Assistant Studies Program is to prepare these providers-to-be for a long life of practicing medicine, despite what changes might come within the broader health care industry. The roughly two-year program is designed for the first half to be focused on a didactic approach that includes a lot of personal instruction and classroom time, while the second half is focused on the clinical practice of medicine. 

“We help them define the process of how to work through seeing a patient, and understanding all those parts and pieces you need to pull together to diagnose and treat the patient,” Murfin explained.

The legislators met “Harvey,” an interactive mannequin that is used in cardiopulmonary training and can simulate up to 30 different medical issues through variations in breathing, heart rate and blood pressure. Tracy Thurnes, associate director of clinical education, said a key role of Harvey is to help students learn to hear and identify heart murmurs. “The more you hear, the more you practice, the more fully you can prepare to identify these conditions in real life,” Thurnes said. 

Nita Skillman is the director of the client and standardized patient program, which employs highly trained actors to simulate specific patient scenarios and medical conditions for students. P.A. students interact with these standardized patients in 10 specially designed exam rooms within the Francis Center that allow those interactions to be recorded and then annotated by instructors as they assess student performance. 

“I’ve already taken a lot of the skills I’ve learned in these exam rooms and put them into my clinical practice,” said Graham Brown, a member of the program’s Class of 2018. 

Elon’s School of Health Sciences is unique in that this spring it launched its own anatomical gift program, which enlists human donors whose bodies after death are used for dissection exercises by students in the Physician Assistant Studies and Physical Therapy programs. The program was the first in the state by a university that does not have its own medical school and is a critical educational resource that is helping attract students to the program. 

The new anatomical gift program is a valuable resource for the school’s state-of-the-art anatomy lab, where students use human donors to better understand how the body works, said Dr. Cindy Bennett, assistant professor of physician assistant studies. 

Asked by Ross if the size of the program was increasing, Murfin explained that the number of students admitted is limited in large part by the number of current health care providers in the larger community who are able to take on students during their clinical education. There’s an emphasis on establishing clinical relationships for students to practice in the surrounding area, she said. 

“We have a lot of medical learners in the state already, and we do have competition for these clinical sites,” Murfin said. “There are only so many providers we have to work with, and they can only take so many students.”

Murfin said some of those clinical hours are spent in specialties, but as a program, Elon focuses on a generalist model to provide a broad education to students who after graduating and beginning to practice as certified physician assistants can begin to delve into specialties. 

“We tend to adopt our students while they are here,” Murfin said. “It is always so exciting to see what amazing things they can do with their careers.”